When Rodney McLeod was sidelined with a knee injury that put the seventh-year player on Injured Reserve, the Eagles' defense needed someone to step up at the safety position.
Rookie Avonte Maddox answered the call.
"I got you," said Maddox of his response when he was asked to learn the safety position. "That's what it was. No hesitation."
Maddox, a fourth-round selection (125th overall) in the 2018 NFL Draft out of Pittsburgh, played only cornerback in college, but was asked to transition into a deep safety role for the Eagles' first game without McLeod.
Maddox played 28 percent of the defensive snaps against Tennessee and impressed as he finished with a pass deflection and a clutch second-quarter interception that led to points before halftime.
"I thought he did well in the limited snaps we gave him," said safety Malcolm Jenkins on Wednesday. "It was kind of a short turnaround. He's going to be somebody I think we want to expand his role as much as we can but obviously not trying to overload him with the entire defense. But I thought he stepped in and played well. He's an explosive player we've been looking to get on the field so this is an opportunity."
Jenkins himself is a perfect role model for Maddox. Before becoming an All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowl safety, Jenkins primarily played cornerback in college at Ohio State. In his second year in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, he was asked to move to the safety position.
Maddox said that Jenkins' mentorship has made the transition easier. Jenkins has shown confidence in Maddox's abilities and has allowed him to take opportunities in practice to learn on the fly.
"Avonte, kind of being that next DB up, has to learn a multitude of positions," Jenkins said. "But he has an opportunity as a young, explosive player to fit in with everyone on the squad. So just trying to get him to learn the safety spot, nickel, maybe dime, so that we have flexibility based on who we play and get on the field."
Maddox competed for the starting nickel cornerback position in the preseason with Sidney Jones. He was eager to take on his new role despite the challenges it brought.
"A lot of things. Angles, learning leverage, and position, big things like that," Maddox said. "Even in the red zone, everything happens quick. It's just a different position. You've got to approach it a different way and you've got to learn it because it's different from the nickel and different from playing (outside) corner."
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had no problem moving Maddox. He told reporters Tuesday that he had confidence in Maddox's ability to learn the position quickly due to his intelligence and quickness. He sees it an opportunity to get an explosive player on the field.
"With Avonte playing the nickel position – there's a lot of carryover between nickel and safety," Schwartz said. "So even though some things are new, he's got excellent quickness and great eyes for the football. He's got the combination of being able to cover and being able to play the run. All the things we liked about him as nickel, we also like about him as a safety. And I think we'll see more of him going forward in that role."
At 5-foot-9, 184 pounds, there are some concerns with Maddox's size at the safety position. But Schwartz brushed those off, saying that the very same concerns were raised with McLeod, who stands at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. Maddox's ability to tackle and smarts make up for any lack of size.
"It's still football," Maddox said. "You've got to be able to tackle, you've got to be able to cover. It's a DB position so you're bringing guys in here that are able to tackle. In this defense, you've got to be able to tackle at corner, safety, and nickel, so it doesn't really matter."
Maddox is a soft-spoken guy in the locker room when he talks to reporters. But on the field, it's a safety's job to be a leader and vocalize adjustments over the noise of the crowd. Jenkins said McLeod was skilled at speaking confidently and getting players lined up. That has been an emphasis in practice with Maddox.
"You've got to be heard on the field," Maddox said. "You've got to be loud. You've got to make sure everybody hears from left, right, and in front of you. On the field, I'm vocal, and in here, I'm chill."
The addition of Maddox to the safety rotation gives the Eagles' defense more depth at an uncertain spot and flexibility in its use of defensive backs. Maddox said he is eager to learn his new position. And if he finds ways to make more plays like his interception against the Titans, the Eagles may have another serious weapon in the secondary.
"The more practice I get, the more reps I get there, the more comfortable I'll be," Maddox said. "Probably more calls, different calls, different things I need to know. Whatever these guys need me to do inside the defense, it will be a challenge, but I'm willing to take it on."